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Native American and First Nations Studies in the American Folklore Society: The Founding AFS Fellows

As I noted in the previous post in this series on the presence and absence of Native American and First Nations studies work within the American Folklore Society, the 1940s began with a political intervention aimed at resolving tensions within the AFS between anthropological folklorists and humanistic, particularly, literature-oriented, folklorists. That moment of crisis is of focused interest here because those folklorists most consistently concerned with Native American and First Nations issues were anthropological in orientation. Most were concurrently active in the American Anthropological Association and, unlike the more literary folklorists, were unlikely to be involved in the Modern Language Association. The broader take away in the second post, which reflected meetings organized in the wake of this anthropology/literary studies intervention, was that in the 1940s, AFS meetings were, in general, very small and that Native American and First Nations-focused scholarship was regularly, but not consistently, present as a small slice a among a collection of small slices within a small field characterized by relatively small meetings even in relationship to the size of the community of folklorists then active in settler colonized North America.

The first post saw similar trends continue into the 1950s–small meetings featuring a small amount of work in Native American and First Nations content. It will be necessary to study other documents beyond the 1950s meeting programs to determine if the pattern seen in the 1940s–of a sizable number of anthropological folklorists working in, and sometimes with, First Nations and Native American communities continuing as a background phenomena to a greater extent that modest program participation would suggest.

One point of data available for the end of the 1950s is the story of the Fellows of the American Folklore Society, which was founded in 1960 (thus, effectively reflecting the state of affairs at the end of the decade. Information of the AFS Fellows can be found on the current AFS website, where all Fellows, past and present, are noted by name. Those who are deceased are so noted and, most relevantly for this project, those who were founding fellows are so noted. If one pulls the names of these first fellows out of the larger list, one can assess the orientation and work focus of this group of disciplinary leaders on colonized Turtle Island at the end of the 1950s. Rather than presenting the names is alphabetical order, I present them here in series of groupings. (For those interested in gender inbalance, I mark men and women in different colors. I also note the gender parity found among the anthropological folklorists.*

The first grouping represents scholars whose primary scholarly involvements concerned Native North America. This first cluster is comprised of two men and two women. In each case, there is nuance that can be added. Each of these four worked fully or significantly in Native American studies as anthropological folklorists. Anna Gayton also did work with Azorean Portuguese immigrants in California. Morris Olpler was also involved in work with Japanese Americans disgracefully interned during WWII and pursued work in East Asian studies also.

  • William Fenton (Ph.D. in Anthropology, 1937)
  • Anna H. Gayton (Ph.D. in Anthropology, 1928)
  • Morris E. Opler (Ph.D. in Anthropology, 1933)
  • Erminie Wheeler-Voegelin (Ph.D. in Anthropology, 1939)

Two other anthropological folklorists can be found in the initial Fellows, one man and one woman. Melville Herskovits was trained in, and worked in, the Americanist anthropological milieu, but was himself a student of African and African American societies. Katherine Luomala had research experience among Native American peoples and was involved, like Morris Opler, in applied work with interned Japanese Americans, but her primary work was set in Hawaii and the Pacific more generally. From the perspective of present-day work in Native American and Indigenous Studies, her involvements in Hawaii would readily move her to the first group.

  • Melville Herskovits (Ph.D. in Anthropology, 1923)
  • Katherine Luomala (Ph.D. in Anthropology, 1936)

Standing somewhat alone as the singular individual that he was, is Thomas Sebeok. Trained in Oriental languages he engaged with anthropology, linguistics, and folklore and was a pioneer in semiotics. His work related to a boundless range of topics, but included Uralic and Altaic languages.

  • Thomas Sebeok (Ph.D. in Oriental Languages, 1945)

The final group is comprised of scholars primarily focusing on European and European American expressive cultures. Most did so on the basis of training in English or another European language, but I note that Halpert held an M.A. in anthropology. Stith Thompson bridged Native and European tale traditions in his dissertation on European tales found among Native American peoples. George Korson rose to a position of prominence on the bases of his research and writings without a university degree. Thelma James held the M.A. degree but did not complete her doctoral studies, although she accomplished much within the discipline. Warren Roberts, from whom I took a class, earned the first Ph.D. in folklore in the United States, at Indiana. He would go on to pursue material culture research in the folklife/European ethnology tradition, but he was trained in the English language studies-informed mode of his mentor and fellow fellow Stith Thompson, as was Herbert Halpert.

  • Tristram P. Coffin (Ph.D. in English, 1949)
  • Herbert Halpert (Ph.D. in English, 1947)
  • Wayland Hand (Ph.D. in Germanic Languages, 1936)
  • Arthur Palmer Hudson (Ph.D. in English, 1930)
  • George Korson
  • Thelma G. James (M.A. in English, 1923)
  • W. Edson Richmond (Ph.D. in English, 1947)
  • Warren Roberts (Ph.D. in Folklore, 1953)
  • Stith Thompson (Ph.D. in English, 1914)
  • Francis Lee Utley (Ph.D. in English, 1936)
  • D.K. Wilgus (Ph.D. in English, 1954)

If we divide the group in to those affiliated with anthropology (including Sebeok), there are seven on this side of the binary divide and eleven on the other side. Of the eighteen founding fellows, four are generally understood as engaged participants in Native American studies, with Stith Thompson maintaining an interest in the field going back to his dissertation and non-trivial ongoing relationships with anthropologists.

How to read this data? I know that the matter is more complex than the following, but by 1960, I think that the days of parity of engagement between literary and anthropological folklore studies were over and that anthropological engagement was significantly diminishing as a growing sense of autonomy for folklore studies as an independent discipline in colonized North America had taken root. There would be re-connections to come (with the influence, for instance, of Dell Hymes and a broader re-connection under the auspices of the ethnography of speaking), but the old relationships of the pre-war era and the Boasian Americanist tradition mainly existed in individualized commitments (Ex. Fenton’s this period, my own in the current one) not as a wholesale collective enterprise in which AFS involvement was simply normative for anthropological ethnographers. As for Native American studies work in folklore, key individuals would come on the scene and do noteworthy work–Barre Toelken provides a clear example–but again, the field was about to grow both in numbers of participants and in diversity of interests and Native American studies would, I anticipate, continue to become a smaller and smaller part of the whole. Study of the meeting programs and JAF for the 1960s may prove me wrong in this anticipation.

* Beyond throwing shade, which I totally am, there are real reasons, both biographical and structural, in the history of American anthropology and the history of American literary studies for this gender difference.

No founding member of the AFS Fellows is known to me to have been a citizen of a Native American Nation. Please correct me if you know me to be in error on this point.

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